Meredith, William (Morris, Jr.)

views updated

MEREDITH, William (Morris, Jr.)

Nationality: American. Born: New York City, 9 January 1919. Education: Lenox School, Massachusetts; Princeton University, New Jersey (Woodrow Wilson fellow, 1946–47), B.A. (magna cum laude) 1940. Military Service: U.S. Army Air Force, 1941–42, and in the U.S. Naval Reserve, 1942–46, 1952–54; Lieutenant Commander. Career: Copyboy and reporter, New York Times, 1940–41; resident fellow in Creative Writing, Princeton University, 1947–48, 1949–50, 1965–66; assistant professor of English, University of Hawaii, Honolulu, 1950–51; member of the department, 1955, and professor of English, 1965–83, Connecticut College, New London. Taught at Bread Loaf Writers Conference, Vermont, summers 1958–62. Opera critic, Hudson Review, New York, 1955–56. Member, Connecticut Commission on the Arts, 1963–65; director of the humanities, Upward Bound Program, 1964–68; poetry consultant, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C., 1978–80. Awards: Yale Series of Younger Poets award, 1943; Harriet Monroe memorial prize, 1944, and Oscar Blumenthal prize, 1953 (Poetry, Chicago); Rockefeller grant, for criticism, 1948, for poetry, 1968; Hudson Review fellowship, 1956; American Academy grant, 1958; Ford fellowship, for drama, 1960; Loines award, 1966; Van Wyck Brooks award, 1971; National Endowment for the Arts grant, 1972, fellowship, 1984; Guggenheim fellowship, 1975; Vaptsarov prize (Bulgaria), 1979; Los Angeles Times prize, 1987; Pulitzer prize, 1988; Academy of American Poets fellowship, 1990. Member, American Academy; Chancellor, Academy of American Poets from 1964. Address: 337 Kitemaug Road, Uncasville, Connecticut 06382–2208, U.S.A.



Love Letter from an Impossible Land. New Haven, Connecticut, Yale University Press, 1944.

Ships and Other Figures. Princeton, New Jersey, Princeton University Press, 1948.

The Open Sea and Other Poems. New York, Knopf, 1958.

The Wreck of the Thresher and Other Poems. New York, Knopf, 1964.

Winter Verse. Privately printed, 1964.

Earth Walk: New and Selected Poems. New York, Knopf, 1970.

Hazard, The Painter. New York, Knopf, 1975.

The Cheer. New York, Knopf, 1980.

Partial Accounts: New and Selected Poems. New York, Knopf, 1987.

Effort at Speech: New and Selected Poems. Evanston, Illinois, TriQuarterly Books/Northwestern University Press, 1997.

Recording: Selected Poems, Watershed, 1977; The Poet and the Poem, Library of Congress, 1990.


The Bottle Imp (libretto), adaptation of the story by Robert Louis Stevenson, music by Peter Whiton (produced Wilton, Connecticut, 1958).


Reasons for Poetry, and The Reason for Criticism (lectures). Washington, D.C., Library of Congress, 1982.

Poems Are Hard to Read. Ann Arbor, University of Michigan Press, 1991.

Editor, Shelley. New York, Dell, 1962.

Editor, University and College Poetry Prizes, 1960–66, in Memory of Mrs. Fanny Fay Wood. New York, Academy of American Poets, 1966.

Editor, with Mackie L. Jarrell, Eighteenth Century Minor Poets. New York, Dell, 1968.

Editor, Poets of Bulgaria. Greensboro, North Carolina, Unicorn Press, 1986; Chingford, Essex, Forest, 1988.

Editor, with Richard Harteis, Window on the Black Sea: Bulgarian Poetry in Translation. Pittsburgh, Carnegie Mellon University Press, 1992.

Translator, Alcools: Poems 1878–1913, by Apollinaire. New York, Doubleday, 1964.


Manuscript Collection: Middlebury College, Vermont.

Critical Studies: "The Language of the Tribe" by Neva Harrington, in Southwest Review, 1982; Three Contemporary Poets of New England by Guy Rotella, Boston, Twayne, 1983; review of Partial Accounts by Edward Hirsch, in New York Times Book Review, 31 July 1988; interview with Betty Parry, in Plum Review, 4, fall-winter 1992.

*  *  *

Introducing William Meredith's Love Letter from an Impossible Land, Archibald MacLeish observed that the poet's "instincts are sound" ("He seems to know, without poisoning himself in the process, which fruits are healthful and which fruits are not"). The consistencies in Meredith's subsequent volumes have proved MacLeish's observation to be true, and his success was signaled by a wider appreciation with the award of a Pulitzer in 1988 for Partial Accounts: New and Selected Poems. Although his meters have loosened in later books, Meredith remains a formal poet who achieves imaginative participation in his subjects by creating them at an aesthetic distance. Poise and understanding are sought and revealed in the subjection of the facts of experience to an imaginative yet rational order. If the experience in a Meredith poem begins as a brute fact or raw emotion, it is transmuted into a shapelier, more civil, and more intelligible image of itself. His work renders emotional force into forms. In a period when many poets sacrifice convention and form for force and immediacy, the risks in his aesthetic are evident. Yet the reader responsive to the legitimate demands such poetry makes will find among the resulting poems those that acknowledge the forces engendering them. In his elegy to the sailors lost in a sunken submarine, the title poem from The Wreck of the Thresher, Meredith writes,

Why can't our dreams be content with the terrible facts?
The only animal cursed with responsible sleep.
We trace disaster always to our own acts.
I met a monstrous self trapped in the black deep:
All these years, he smiled, I've drilled at sea
For this crush of water. Then he saved only me.

Confronting the inexplicable tragedy of meaningless death, Meredith characteristically concludes, "Whether we give assent to this or rage / Is a question of temperament and does not matter."

This poem reflects two of Meredith's abiding concerns, the threat of death and the loneliness of the sea, already enunciated in the final ten poems of his first book. Service as a naval aviator in two Pacific wars marked out for Meredith a part of his donnée. Images of oceanic space, the lonely sky, distant islands seen from vast heights, the unknown destinies of men in wartime, and the responses of an American to oriental cultures (Japan, Korea, Hawaii) recur in his poems. Characteristically, he deals with such themes pictorially, fixing his images as though in a painting, imposing upon them the designs imagination discovers and the forms and meters appropriated by a scrupulously sensitive ear. His instinct is to render such design. For example, in "Rus in Urbe" (from The Open Sea) he chooses "in a city garden an espalliered tree," not nature unadorned but nature shaped by human skill and imagination. Yet in a later poem, "Roots" (from The Wreck of the Thresher), a dialogue narrative in the mode of Frost, he discovers in nature itself the pattern that in "Rus in Urbe" imagination had to wrest by altering the shapes of trees.

The new poems in Earth Walk: New and Selected Poems use a conversational, colloquial style, as in "Walter Jenks' Bath": "These are my legs. I don't have to tell them, legs, / Move up or down or which leg." With like informality of diction Meredith explores dreams, probes memory, creates characters, and, as in the title poem, makes a wry statement about being himself at a time when almost everyone else is preoccupied by somebody else's Moon walk. The formality of the work is less a matter of surface and detail (such as regular stanza, rhythm, and rhyme) than formerly, but the design of the experience is quietly interiorized in each poem. His tone is modest rather than boisterous, his range deceptively larger than the voice whose speech provides the style.

Hazard, The Painter is a series of sixteen poems dramatizing the life not only of the artist of its title but also, by inference, of his time. For two years Hazard has been at work on a painting of a falling parachutist, "the human figure dangling safe … full of half remembered instruction / but falling, and safe." Hazard "is in charge of morale in a morbid time," the time of Richard Nixon's election as U.S. president, when the "nation has bitterly misspoken itself." He measures his own modest gift against the greatness of Titian and Renoir and reflects on his relationships to his wife, children, and friends and to the earth. The tone of the poems is at once intimate and slightly distanced by third-person narration, and the effect of the suite is that of a novel in verse, a whole life economically suggested by glimpses. Its theme is no less than the artist's responsibility in a time when "more of each day is dark": "Gnawed by a vision of rightness / that no one else seems to see, / what can a man do / but bear witness."

As a result of the acquaintance made with Bulgarian poets during his year as the consultant in poetry at the Library of Congress, Meredith published Poets of Bulgaria (1986), with translations by himself and others. This was followed by another collection coedited with Richard Harteis, Window on the Black Sea: Bulgarian Poetry in Translation (1992), twenty-two contemporary poets translated by twenty-seven Americans. In recognition of his service to Bulgarian literature, Meredith was given citizenship in that country by presidential decree in 1996.

In 1983 Meredith suffered a stroke, resulting in aphasia, a particularly cruel blow to a poet. With the help of Harteis, his longtime companion who fortuitously had been a military medic, Meredith made a slow but marked recovery. His new and selected poems in 1997 has the appropriate title Effort at Speech. Michael Collier's appreciative foreword points out Meredith's debts to Frost, Auden, and Muriel Rukeyser. Collier writes, "Meredith's optimism is not facile … It carries with it the knowledge that 'we are all relicts, wearing black' ("In Loving Memory of the Late Author of Dream Songs "). Meredith's belief in his own vision of things is embedded in his faith that when words are used accurately to describe experience they cannot lie or bear false witness." This quality of self-searching honesty pervades his poems.

In 1976 Meredith published a complete translation of Alcools by Apollinaire, a poet whose intuitive mode of apprehending experience would seem quite different from his own. In his poem "For Guillaume Apollinaire" Meredith writes, "But these poems— / How quickly the strangeness would pass from things if it were not for them." The same may be said of his own best work.

—Daniel Hoffman